Metro-East News

Adult-care workers rally for more staff to help clients

One of the greatest accomplishments of Patti Vardiman’s career working with developmentally disabled adults came unexpectedly one day.

She was working with the learning series “Hooked on Phonics” when a middle-aged woman in her class caught her attention.

“I just put (in the CD) just to try it out to see if anybody would respond — and she’s unable to move her hands — and she was sitting at the table moaning.”

Vardiman went over to the table.

“She was actually following the CD and reading along with the CD and the book. It was time to turn the page, and she was unable to do that.”

Vardiman said she was fascinated to learn more about her client, who had just turned 50. Varidman found out that she could read the text to her and so long as the questions were in a yes-or-no format, her client could answer them.

“We do so many things,” Vardiman said of her work as a direct support professional, or DSP, at Community Link, the Breese-based organization with offices across the metro-east.

“We’re interpreters,” she said, adding later, “We’re housekeepers. We’re (certified nursing assistants). I can’t stress enough to people that this is not a minimum wage job, and in order to get the staff that we need, we have to make (the job) more attractive and offer them more money.”

Vardiman spoke at a press conference in Belleville on Tuesday on behalf of many metro-east direct support professionals at 16 organizations, as well as the people they work for, to draw attention to what John Huelskamp, the executive director of Community Link, described as a “growing crisis ... that threatens the core of the entire system of support” in community-based centers.

The organizations are worried that stories like Vardiman’s could disappear without attracting more workers to the field through higher wages.

The support professionals work with an estimated 27,000 people with developmental disabilities in the state, 1,500 of which are located in the metro-east, according to the groups.

There are 34,000 direct support professionals in Illinois, and their average wage per hour is $9.35, for a total of $19,000 a year, for very “emotionally-draining” work, Huelskamp said.

The workers haven’t received a pay increase in eight years, which makes attracting people to the field of adult care difficult. Over time, that means that clients are subject to more mistakes and inferior care, the organizations said.

“It’s the equivalent to ignoring repairs in the bridges and roads,” Huelskamp said.

Finding the right wage

There are two types of direct support professionals. The first work in “community facilities” and say they are paid less than those who who are unionized and work in state facilities.

About 45 percent of community-based direct support professionals, on the other hand, receive some form of public assistance, like SNAP benefits, better known as food stamps, Huelskamp said, and that paying workers more would relieve some of the burden on state aid.

He suggested raising the wage to $15 an hour.

The pay increase wouldn’t come solely on the back of Illinoisans, he pointed out. Because Medicaid reimbursements account for half of the funding of community-based adult care centers, the federal government would also pick up half of the pay raise.

A pay increase would keep people at their jobs, which the forum attendees said they think is necessary to build and maintain relationships with their clients.

There are three levels of functionality clients possess, which require different numbers of support staff. Federal guidelines mandate one support worker for every 10 adults with high functionality, seven with medium functionality and five with low functionality. If programs don’t meet those staffing levels, Huelskamp said, they could lose their funding.

That level of care on paper has strong reverberations in the real world, as Peter McManus knows.

McManus, a client who shares his home with three roommates in Quincy, said that it takes him a while to warm up to the right people.

“I’m very cautious about who I trust,” he said.

McManus likes the freedom of his house and the help the support workers provide.

As for Patti Vardiman, who works in Fairview Heights, she knows the world of caring for adults with developmental disabilities inside and out. Not only does she work with clients at Community Link every day, but two of her family members also attend the program.

At home, however, she said she often feels guilty because she is always thinking about her job and new ways to help her clients.

“It takes time to be able to look at them and just know what they want or what they need. It could be a gesture. It could be a noise, a grunt, or whatever, and over time we can look at them and tell what it is that they want. Somebody else could walk in the room, and they would be clueless.”

Two bills in the Illinois legislature may raise Vardiman’s pay to $15 an hour, but they are early in the legislative process, leaving Vardiman at below $12 after more than two decades in the industry.

Still, she said, she has no regrets. After becoming a direct support professional in the early 1990s when she was between jobs, now, she said, she felt she has found her calling.

Casey Bischel: 618-239-2655, @CaseyBischel